Main Content

This landscape is by painter Thomas Hill, who was among a group of artists known for their images of the unexplored western frontier. The painting is of Bridalveil Fall, a waterfall in what is now Yosemite National Park in California.

White House Collection/White House Historical Association

The national parks preceded the National Park Service, but the first great natural park was a state park. California’s Yosemite State Park was established in 1864, by a federal cession approved by President Abraham Lincoln, and on October 21, 1880, President Rutherford B. Hayes toured California’s Yosemite in an open carriage. On March 1, 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant had approved the establishment of Yellowstone National Park “as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”1 Yellowstone was the first “national” park. Following the Yellowstone precedent, Congress established national parks in the 1890s and early 1900s, including Mount Rainier (1899), Glacier (1910), and Yosemite, which was returned to the United States by California in 1890.

President Theodore Roosevelt saw in conservation a means of keeping the natural wealth of the United States for the public and not leaving it as it had been for the economic benefit of entrepreneurs. In a move to preserve prehistoric Indian ruins and artifacts on public lands, he signed the Antiquities Act of 1906, using it to create eighteen national monuments by presidential proclamation, including Devils Tower in Wyoming; El Morro in New Mexico; and, in Arizona, Montezuma Castle, the Petrified Forest, and the Grand Canyon. During his tenure as president Roosevelt established 150 national forests, 51 bird preserves, and 4 game preserves.2 In those same years Congress established 5 national parks, including Crater Lake in Oregon, Wind Cave in South Dakota, and Mesa Verde in Colorado. Roosevelt increased natural forest lands from 43 million to 194 million acres.

President Theodore Roosevelt at Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park, California, 1903. Five years later he assembled the state governors in a conservation conference in the East Room that resulted in the National Conservation Commission.

Sagamore Hill National Historic Site/NPS

Several Park Service sites recognize Roosevelt’s conservation efforts. In 1932 Congress authorized Theodore Roosevelt Island as a national memorial. This island, in the Potomac River at Washington, D.C., was reclaimed as a forest and wildlife sanctuary. Another memorial to Roosevelt’s conservation efforts is Theodore Roosevelt National Park, established in 1947. This is the ranch in North Dakota that Roosevelt bought as a young man and where he fell in love with the natural wilderness of the area. Roosevelt once said of the Grand Canyon: “Leave it as it is. You cannot improve it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar. What you do is to keep it for your children, your children’s children, and for all who come after you, as the one great sight which every American . . . should see.”3

Evidence of Roosevelt’s love of the wilderness was Pine Knot, a cabin and 15 acres near Charlottesville, Virginia, that First Lady Edith Roosevelt purchased as a rural retreat, a four-hour train ride away from Washington and the White House. The Roosevelts and their children enjoyed Pine Knot, visiting several times during the Roosevelt presidency. It was the first of the presidential rustic cabins, which culminated in Camp David.

In 1909 William Howard Taft, who followed Roosevelt in the presidency, proclaimed Mukuntuweap National Monument in Utah (later it became Zion National Park), and he continued to establish national monuments by presidential proclamation. Under Taft, Glacier National Park was established in 1910. In 1912, First Lady Helen Herron Taft and her friend the Viscountess Chinda, wife of the Japanese ambassador, planted two Yoshino cherry trees on the banks of the Potomac River, near what was to become the Jefferson Memorial, to celebrate the gift sent by Yukio Ozaki, mayor of Tokyo, of 3,020 Japanese cherry trees to beautify the parks of Washington, D.C. Mrs. Taft knew Japan well from the time when her husband was governor-general of the Philippines, and she remembered the spring cherry blossoms.

A 1934 postcard of the Cherry Blossoms on the banks of the Potomac River planted by First Lady Helen Herron Taft.

Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library and Museum /NARA

The national parks had been developed by conservationists and by hunters like Roosevelt in an idealistic impulse to preserve nature, but also by businessmen in the desire to promote tourism. Western railroads favored many of the early parks by building grand hotels, where those who traveled by train could stay. Promoters launched a crusade for a national parks bureau in the pages of the Saturday Evening Post and the National Geographic. Legislation creating the National Park Service was signed by President Woodrow Wilson on August 25, 1916.

In 1923, President Warren G. Harding created a number of national monuments, including Aztec Ruins in New Mexico, Hovenweep in Utah and Colorado, and Pipe Spring in Arizona. Harding dedicated a monumental bronze statue to the Greek hero of music, Orpheus, at Fort McHenry Park in Baltimore on June 14, 1922. His speech was the first to be broadcast on live radio coast to coast.

No president had visited Yellowstone since Theodore Roosevelt in 1903. Stephen Mather, first director of the National Park Service, convinced President Harding to visit three national parks in route to his ill-fated vacation in California and Alaska in June and July 1923. President and Mrs. Harding stopped at Zion National Park. A coterie of seventy-two along with reporters and newsreel cameramen followed them to Yellowstone. Mounted park rangers formed an honor guard as the presidential motorcade entered through the stone arch with its inscription: “For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People.” When the president noted there were no crowds on the roads, he took out a package of chewing tobacco and started to chew. After a visit to Old Faithful and a night in the Old Faithful Inn, the president had his picture taken with Jesse James, a famous black bear of the park. A group of college girls who worked at a park hotel gathered at the presidential touring car and sang for the Hardings. Near the park’s exit President Harding gathered with reporters and newsreel cameras and said, “Commercialism will never be tolerated here as long as I have the power to prevent it."4

A short time later, on August 2, 1923, news reached Yellowstone that President Harding was dead. After visiting the park he had gone to Alaska, where he had been taken ill, and then taken by ship to San Francisco. He died in San Francisco’s Palace Hotel just before his last planned park visit to Yosemite. 5

Calvin Coolidge wears a cowboy hat and Western garb while on a 2-month vacation in the Black Hills of South Dakota in 1927.

Library of Congress

To get away from Washington’s summer heat and insects, President Calvin Coolidge and First Lady Grace Goodhue Coolidge spent the summer of 1927 at a game lodge in Rapid City, South Dakota, in the Black Hills. President Coolidge fished for trout in streams recently stocked by the locals for his pleasure. It was a summer much in the press, not least for the “Black Hills Affair,” in which reporters greatly embellished the first lady’s being lost for several hours on mountain trails with a Secret Serviceman. An angered president gave no comment. The South Dakotans presented him with a widebrimmed Western hat and boots, which he obligingly wore. He was photographed in an elaborate Indian headdress presented to him by a local Indian chief. In Rapid City he made the announcement: “I do not choose to run for president in 1928.”

That summer, the sculptor Gutzon Borglum persuaded Coolidge to dedicate Mount Rushmore on August 10, 1927, before work began on the carving of the heads of four presidents. Coolidge presented Borglum with six steel drill bits to start the work. On August 22, the Coolidges arrived at Yellowstone, where the president fished in the Firehole River near Old Faithful. At first he insisted on using worms and did not catch anything, but the park’s chief ranger taught him how to use spinners, and the president was delighted when he caught fifteen fish.6

The Hoovers stand on a footbridge at Camp Rapidan in the Mountains of Virginia.

National Park Service

President Herbert Hoover and First Lady Lou Henry Hoover sought forest land not far from Washington where they could get away, rest, and engage in the president’s passion for trout fishing. At the urging of William E. Carson, head of the Virginia Commission on Conservation and Development, Hoover established a fishing camp on the upper Rapidan River in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Madison County, Virginia, about 100 miles from Washington. The area had been designated to become part of the upcoming Shenandoah National Park. A road was built up to the Rapidan campsite, and rustic cabins were constructed. What became Camp Hoover was the setting for entertaining Charles A. Lindbergh and British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald. The Hoovers enjoyed Camp Rapidan and were active in establishing a Herbert Hoover Mountain School for the children of the mountain people. Riding up from Camp Rapidan to Skyland, a resort on the Blue Ridge, Hoover became convinced that the government should build a public road connecting the two, incorporating views eastward from the Blue Ridge and westward into the Shenandoah Valley. This plan was accomplished during the Roosevelt administration and became the Skyline Drive of Shenandoah National Park. Hoover paid for his camp on the Rapidan personally and eventually deeded the property to Shenandoah National Park. 7

Early in his administration Franklin Roosevelt drove out to Camp Hoover to see if it was suitable for a presidential retreat. The presidential party drove from the camp to Skyland on a road improved by Hoover, but eventually to become the Skyline Drive, and then back to Washington. Former President Hoover’s offer was rejected because of the inconvenience of the camp for wheelchairs.

On the road back to Washington, Roosevelt listened to plans laid out by Horace Albright, director of the National Park Service, to make the Park Service the sole federal agency responsible for all federally owned public monuments and memorials. This transfer would include Civil War battlefields, such as Antietam, Chattanooga-Chickamauga, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, Petersburg, and Shiloh, which were managed by the War Department; various national monuments; and the entire park system of the nation’s capital, at that time under the Army Corps of Engineers. By this time the Park Service had acquired Morristown National Historical Park in New Jersey; Colonial National Monument, including Jamestown and the Yorktown battlefield in Virginia; and George Washington Birthplace National Monument, also in Virginia. The executive order agreed upon by Roosevelt and signed on June 10, 1933, established the Park Service in the administration of East Coast historical parks, to be added to the great Western parks, as well as the national capital parks of Washington.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt visits a Civilian Conservation Core (CCC) camp in the Shenandoah National Park. One of Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, the CCC employed 3 million men during the Great Depression to improve parks nationwide by planting trees, building roads and bridges, and both building new structures and restoring historic ones.

Harpers Ferry, National Park Service Historic Photograph Collection

President Roosevelt proposed a Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC) to take 250,000 jobless young men, pay them $30 a month, and give them useful work in federal and state parks and forests. Men of the CCC developed the Skyline Drive and Shenandoah National Park from 1933 to 1942 during the New Deal. In 1933 President Roosevelt visited a CCC Camp in Big Meadows in Shenandoah National Park to promote his national recovery program. He returned to dedicate the northern section of the Skyline Drive on July 3, 1936. The work of the CCC encompassed building roads, bridges, forests, cabin camps, and park structures in parks nationwide. It was the largest park improvement program, and the magnitude of its achievement in the national parks has never been surpassed.

By 1940 President Roosevelt needed his own presidential retreat convenient to Washington. Not since his visit to Camp Hoover in 1933 had he wished for a Washington area retreat; now visits to Hyde Park took him too far from his associates in the capital. He had spent relaxing weekends on the presidential yacht Potomac, and he had visited Barnard Baruch’s Hobcaw Plantation in South Carolina. After consulting the Park Service, he chose Cabin Camp 4, one of a series of camps at Catoctin Recreational Demonstration Area near Thurmont, Maryland, within the Catoctin Mountains. A quickly rehabilitated boy’s camp for children from Baltimore, the retreat became Roosevelt’s “Shangri-La,” later renamed Camp David by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. 8

President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill at Shangri-La in May of 1943. Shangri-La, located in Maryland, was later renamed Camp David by President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

President Harry Truman is not remembered historically as a conservationist. Yet on December 6, 1947, he formally dedicated a huge marshland in south Florida called the Everglades and met with tribal leaders of the resident Seminoles. On September 14, 1950, Truman signed legislation consolidating 310,000 acres of Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. After decades of controversy with private property owners, much of the land for the park was purchased by John D. Rockefeller Jr. and given to the U.S. government.

Laurance Rockefeller and members of the Rockefeller family acquired more than 5,000 acres of land on St. John, Virgin Islands, which they donated to the federal government. On August 2, 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed a law establishing the Virgin Islands National Park. On January 19, 1961, he signed legislation creating the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park, extending uninterrupted from the District of Columbia to Cumberland, Maryland, along the Potomac River.

Eisenhower had great interest in the Gettysburg battlefield, where he set up his retirement home—itself to become a national park. In a visit to the Pennsylvania monument at Gettysburg National Military Park on October 23, 1954, about the time work rebuilding his house was completed, Eisenhower said to an admiring crowd: “I hope you are people we will get to see a lot of in the days to come. . . . And I assure you that one of the things we are looking forward to, more than anything else in our lives, is when that day comes that we can go over here and settle down back of Round Top, and begin to raise few cows of our own.”9

President John F. Kennedy dedicates the newly created lake at Whiskeytown National Recreation Area, in California, in 1963.

John F. Kennedy Presidential Library/NARA

President John F. Kennedy established Cape Cod National Seashore on August 7, 1961. He visited Gettysburg on March 31, 1963, and was guided around the battlefield by a local history teacher and National Park Service historian, Jacob M. Sheads. In 1963 Kennedy dedicated Whiskeytown Lake as part of Whiskeytown National Recreation Area in California.

President Lyndon B. Johnson was very active in the conservation movement largely because of the interest of First Lady Lady Bird Johnson. In 1964 Mrs. Johnson formed the Committee for a More Beautiful Capital, and she directed planting of flowers—notably tulips—throughout the parks of Washington. She expanded her “beautification” movement nationwide as she visited scenic areas, national parks, and historic sites promoting conservation and historic preservation. Nash Castro of the National Park Service was the key official in her programs overseeing its objective and details. On Mrs. Johnson’s nine beautification trips, she visited the Hudson River National Heritage Area in New York, Big Bend National Park in Texas, Redwood National Park in California, and various Virginia historic sites. The Johnson administration achieved passage of the Wilderness Act of 1964, the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act of 1965, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968, and the establishment of numerous new national parks. Mrs. Johnson wrote the introduction for the seminal book, With Heritage So Rich, which helped promote passage of the 1966 Historic Preservation Act, setting up the National Register of Historic Places and a presidentally appointed Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. Her work is commemorated by the Lady Bird Johnson Park across from the Lyndon Baines Johnson Memorial Grove on the Potomac along the George Washington Memorial Parkway. For her activity in preserving Redwood National Park in California, President Richard Nixon dedicated, on August 27, 1969, a Lady Bird Johnson Grove within the park.

President Jimmy Carter and his daughter Amy examine a cannon on a tour of Gettysburg National Military Park with Anwar Sadat and Menahem Begin, in 1978.

Jimmy Carter Presidential Library/NARA

In his youth, President Gerald R. Ford worked as a park ranger at Yellowstone National Park in the summer of 1936. As president he returned to Yellowstone on August 29, 1976, generating renewed interest in the national parks.

During the Camp David Summit on September 10, 1978, President Jimmy Carter toured Gettysburg battlefield with Anwar Sadat of Egypt and Menahem Begin of Israel. That same year, the Carters vacationed in Grand Teton National Park. With a broad use of the Antiquities Act, President Carter took action on December 1, 1978, to preserve seventeen vast and endangered areas of Alaska by declaring them national monuments. In 1980, he signed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which protected more than 100 million acres of federal lands in Alaska, creating ten new national parks and enlarging three others.

Widening the focus of the Park System, in 1988 President Ronald Reagan created a national park in American Samoa. On July 12, 1984, he visited Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky, and on July 4, 1986, First Lady Nancy Reagan visited the Statue of Liberty National Monument in New York Harbor.

President George H. W. Bush speaks at the dedication of the USS Arizona National Memorial at Pearl Harbor in December 1991.

George Bush Presidential Library/NARA

President George H. W. Bush and First Lady Barbara Bush were enthusiastic visitors to national parks, touring Yellowstone, Grand Teton, the Everglades, the Statue of Liberty, the Grand Canyon, Mount Rushmore, the USS Arizona National Memorial at Pearl Harbor, and the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site. At home in Washington, D.C., they visited the Lincoln Memorial, the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, the Jefferson Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site, and the Korean War Veterans Memorial. George H. W. Bush, with his son President George W. Bush, visited the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., with Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, on May 8, 2007.

President Bill Clinton used the 1906 Antiquities Act to create nineteen national monuments, including the long-overlooked Lincoln Summer White House at the Soldiers’ Home, Washington, D.C.10 On October 31, 1994, Joshua Tree National Park was established by President Clinton as part of the California Desert Protection Act, which created the largest protected wilderness area in the Lower Forty-Eight, adding 234,000 acres to the existing boundaries and elevating it to national park status. Clinton visited Yellowstone, Grand Teton, the Grand Canyon, and the Great Falls of the Potomac River, part of George Washington Memorial Parkway, on Earth Day on April 22, 1996.

President Bill Clinton and family at the Grand Tetons National Park in August, 1995.

William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush visited many national parks during their eight years at the White House. President Bush took a walking tour of Moro Rock in Sequoia National Park on May 1, 2001. He delivered remarks on homeland security at Mount Rushmore in August 2002 and visited the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, Thousand Oaks, California, shortly afterward. Both President Bush and Mrs. Bush attended a roundtable on the National Parks Centennial Initiative at Shenandoah National Park, in Luray, Virginia, on February 7, 2007. They toured Jamestown National Historic Site during the celebration of the 400th anniversary of settlement on May 13, 2007. Laura Bush delivered remarks at the rededication of the Zion National Park Nature Center in Springdale, Utah, on April 29, 2007, and on August 27 she spoke to junior rangers during a visit to Grand Teton National Park.

In 2006, President Bush proclaimed the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument, creating the largest marine reserve to date. 11 Renamed Papahanaumokuakea in 2007, its 84 million acres are home to 7,000 species of fish, birds, and other marine animals. As he was leaving office, President Bush established the Marianas Trench Marine National Monument in the South Pacific, attesting to the durability of the Antiquities Act of 1906.

Following the long presidential tradition, President Barack Obama and his family visited Yellowstone National Park on August 14, 2009, and the Grand Canyon on August 16. The Obama family visited Acadia National Park on July 13, 2010.

This article was originally published in White House History Number 28 Fall 2010

Footnotes & Resources

  1. Quoted in The National Parks: Shaping the System (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, 2005), 13.
  2. A convenient list is in the appendix of Douglas Brinkley, The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America (New York: Harper-Collins, 2009).
  3. “Mr. Roosevelt Sees the Grand Canyon,” New York Times, May 7, 1903, 2, as cited in ibid. 527. This book is an excellent account of Theodore Roosevelt’s fight for conservation.
  4. Quoted in Horace M. Albright and Robert Cahn, The Birth of the National Park Service: The Founding Years, 1913–1933 Institute of American West Books, Salt Lake City: Howell Brothers, 1985, 154.
  5. Ibid., 149–55.
  6. Ibid., 211.
  7. Darwin Lambert, Herbert Hoover’s Hideaway, Bulletin 4 (Luray, Va.: Shenandoah Natural History Association, 1971), 53, 57.
  8. Barbara Kirkconnell, “The New Deal and the Beginnings of Camp David,”White House History 18 (Spring 2006): 32–49.
  9. “Remarks at the Pennsylvania Monument, Gettysburg National Park, October 23, 1954, John T. Woolley and Gerhard Peters, The American Presidency Project.
  10. President Lincoln’s Cottage is administered by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
  11. Papahanaumokuakea is managed by the Department of the Interior’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Commerce Department’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in close coperation with the state of Hawaii.

You Might Also Like